I’m sure if you read my last post about Music and Silence you’ll be just desperate to know what Rose Tremain had to say for herself about the treatment of the characters Magdalena Tilsen and Kirsten Munk. Well, she came to visit our Novel History class on Wednesday and I feel she defended her decisions pretty adequately.

Depending on what you consider to be a scoop, I might have one: RT calmly stated that Emilia’s passivity ‘is a problem’, but that she had only become aware of this now that the novel is being adapted for film and Peter and Emilia have become a headache for the screenwriters. I don’t think I have heard an author make that sort of admission before, and I respect it very much. Accepting that there might be ‘mistakes’ (her word) in the novel freed me up to enjoy the excellent parts of it.

In terms of Kirsten, RT said that she was great fun to write, but that as her exile was a real fact of history, her ‘punishment’ could not be avoided. Perhaps she felt that Samuel and Emmanuel the human sex toys would provide some kind of, ah, happy ending? I didn’t ask. I was pleased to see what a feminist reading she seemed to have of the source material, explaining that in her opinion both Kirsten and Magdalena acted from ‘a place of great rage’. Kirsten, never proclaimed queen, enduring at least twelve pregnancies, and haunted by a sense of rivalry Christian IV’s dead first wife, slept around because it was the only kind of power she had. Tremain interprets her as a character who is always motivated by anger, and actually this is borne out in her writing. But the rest – no.

As compassionately as she spoke of Magdalena – a woman using her sexuality to gain leverage in a family that is not her own – she did use the word ‘wickedness’, and I think this is where it all gets a bit reductive. RT herself understands that wickedness is not even the half of it, and this understanding is briefly addressed in the novel when Kirsten is given this passage:

‘For surely the condition of Slavery is spread through and through our Society, except that it is not termed Slavery: it is termed Duty. And chiefest among those who live in a condition of Bondage and yet call their bonds by sweet names such as Fidelity and Hope are Women. For are we not owned – as Drudges or Ornaments or a combination of both – by our Fathers and Husbands? Do we not labour and bring forth children and get no reward for this except the reward of the mewling child itself, which is no reward at all? […] What wages have we deserved in all our terrible work and pain of the bed alone, and never got?’

If it hadn’t been for this passage, I’d have been happy to accept that I was finding fault in Music and Silence because it wasn’t the book I wanted it to be. But surely this sort of paragraph is a statement of intent? I admire it very much, particularly as it is not a plea for emancipation, but in fact Kirsten’s attempt to ‘ease my Conscience in all my dealings with my Black Boys’. However, it comes on page 439 of a 455-page novel, and this for me is a huge problem. Surely if you are going to introduce this sort of perspicacity it should be right at the book’s core? Not bunged in as a sort of summing-up.

Mind you, on second or third reading most of the characters do make sense when viewed through Kirsten’s hypothesis that ‘all the world turns on a Prevailing Condition of Slavery from which there does not seem to be any escape’. Everybody – kings, musicians, stepmothers, mothers-in-law, wives, mistresses – are in some form of bondage, and use this bondage to rationalise the way they treat those lower down in the pecking order – slaves, schoolmates, stepsons. There’s a fantastic novel there: the orchestra itself pretty much typifies the drudge and/or ornament idea, even when it’s not playing in a cellar. I believe I’m justifiably disappointed that the only characters to whom the Prevailing Condition of Slavery seems to be ultimately irrelevant are Peter Claire and Emilia Tilsen, the very characters who are supposed to lead us through the novel. For me, that weakness undermines everything else.

Probably time to lay this one to rest anyway. It is a very grand and lovely novel in many ways, only very unsatisfying when placed against the other texts on our reading list. As a romp it’s highly enjoyable.